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As usual, there’s nothing quite like looking over The Big Picture’s “Year In Review” while listening to “Saturdays=Youth” by M83. Happy Boxing Day!

He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would be able to go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of crushed herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terracotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge: no further.

– From “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel

The Rise Of Endymion by Dan Simmons (1997) 709 p.

The first book I read this year was Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which in turn led to The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, together comprising what I believe is one of the most well-written and compulsively readable science fiction adventures of our age. I really grew to love these books and the fascinating universe they contain, so it was a bit of a bummer that the last book fell apart.

The first three books consisted largely of high adventure, intergalactic politics, epic warfare and apolcayptic social collapse, and very slightly of things like religion and metaphysics and philosophy. The Rise of Endymion, unfortunately, flips that formula around. It continues the tale of Aenea, the child of Brawne Lamia destined to become a new messiah, chronicling her rise to greatness from the point of view of her bodyguard and lover Raul Endymion. It is, essentially, a gospel, and most of the book reads like one. It’s not that it’s a poorly-written or overly preachy or even a shallow gospel, but it is boring, and I had no desire to read it. I realised two-thirds of the way through that I wasn’t enjoying reading it, and was counting the pages until it was over, which is not something I ever thought I’d be doing in the Hyperion series.

It has its moments. Raul’s journey down the world-spanning River Tethys is great (yet over almost as soon as it begins), and the climax is gripping. But the rest of the book is tedious and extremely bloated. In particular, a 200+ page visit to a Tibetan-themed planet almost groans under the weight of all the superfluous geographic worldbuilding and endless background characters it must endure. (You can tell this book was written the same year Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun were released, when the Western obsession with Tibetan exoticism was at its zenith.) Likewise, there are wearying descriptions of the baroque splendour of the Vatican and its rituals. The entire book is, essentially, Simmons sinking into a whirpool of miscellanous religious iconography. He doesn’t do so without purpose or objective merit, and I can see how this book would appeal to some, but personally I found it an unenjoyable ride.

Overall, The Rise of Endymion is an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise excellent science fiction series. Which is a shame, but honestly, three hits out of four isn’t bad in this arena.

I’ve known about Order of Tales, Evan Dahm’s sequel to Rice Boy, for quite a while now, but I was waiting for him to finish it before I read it all through. Apparently that happened some time ago, so we’re cleared for take off! This is the best panel so far:

I love Wikileaks. I love everything about it, not just the delicious caches of secret information it releases; I love the fascinating international man of mystery who controls it, I love the way it regularly sends the U.S. government into an explosive panic, and I love the way it represents the digital age being used for freedom of speech and the press, exposing all of our governments’ shameful secrets. Some of the best revelations from the cable leaks:

When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”

Aside from the implications of that (i.e. that the government we have established in Afghanistan is hopelessly corrupt), how does one actually carry $52 million in cash? $2 million alone fills up a briefcase, doesn’t it?

Counselor of the Department of State Eliot Cohen and CSIS Director Jim Judd in Ottawa on July 2 discussed threats posed by violent Islamist groups in Canada, and recent developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (CSIS is Canada’s lead agency for national security intelligence.) Director Judd ascribed an “Alice in Wonderland” worldview to Canadians and their courts, whose judges have tied CSIS “in knots,” making it ever more difficult to detect and prevent terror attacks in Canada and abroad.

Urggh, God, how dare the courts try to maintain the rule of law?

In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.

This is a huge deal. The question of whether China’s desire to maintain a buffer state between itself and a country with a permanent US troop presence would translate into actual combat support in the event of a war has now been answered, with a resounding no. North Korea now has zero chance of winning a war against the South. That still makes a war undesirable for all concerned (except Northern citizens languishing under a barbaric regime), but now that Southerners are aware of this, it could make a huge difference in the level of public support if push ever comes to shove.

4. (C//NF) Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC groups.

//Identifying The Scope of The Threat the Russian Mafia Poses//

5. (C) Grinda suggested that there are two reasons to worry about the Russian mafia. First, it exercises “tremendous control” over certain strategic sectors of the global economy, such as aluminum. He made a passing remark that the USG has a strategic problem in that the Russian mafia is suspected of having a sizable investment in XXXXXXXXXXXX 6. (S//NF) The second reason is the unanswered question regarding the extent to which Russian PM Putin is implicated in the Russian mafia and whether he controls the mafia’s actions. Grinda cited a “thesis” by Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian intelligence official who worked on OC issues before he died in late 2006 in London from poisoning under mysterious circumstances, that the Russian intelligence and security services – Grinda cited the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and military intelligence (GRU) – control OC in Russia. Grinda stated that he believes this thesis is accurate.

An intriguing alliance: American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe.

You know how you watch those old movies set in medieval times, like, say, Robin Hood or Braveheart or whatever, where the upper class lives in insane luxury and malevolently rules over the populace with unrestrained power? That’s basically still how the modern world works.

Speaking of the monarchy:

9. (C) Addressing the Ambassador directly, Prince Andrew then turned to regional politics. He stated baldly that “the United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans too”) were now back in the thick of playing the Great Game. More animated than ever, he stated cockily: “And this time we aim to win!” Without contradicting him, the Ambassador gently reminded him that the United States does not see its presence in the region as a continuation of the Great Game.

This entire cable is worth reading, written as it is by a wearily cynical American diplomat. A privileged jackass runs his mouth while surrounded by people who are better educated and more hard-working than he is, but they smile and nod throughout because he’s part of the royal family. Ah, the delights of monarchy!

On a final note, while many of the leaks themselves are highly entertaining, none can live up to the reaction of the U.S. government, which has again accused Wikileaks of “[putting] people’s lives in danger.” You can see a list of the people who have died as a result of Wikileaks’ various disclosures here; meanwhile, you can see a list of the people who have died as a result of the U.S. government’s actions here.

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